The NBA has been pivotal in race relations in the U.S., beginning with Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and Earl Lloyd, and Chuck Cooper who became the first African-American players in the NBA in 1950. The Boston Celtics started a the first all-black starting five in the 50’s and went on to win tons of championships. This week NBA veteran Jason Collins became the first active male athlete in a pro sport to come out as homosexual. Most of the more popular players in the NBA are African American and  roughly 77% of the players are black.

Thousands of fans watch them compete in brightly-lit arenas; millions more tune in to see them play on tv. They appear in countless commercials and on innumerable billboards, hawking basketball shoes and athletic apparel as well as new models of cell phones. On a nightly basis, players stage dramatized athletic contests, embodying grace, skill, and ingenuity as they compete against each other. But the NBA’s Black players also enact racial meaning through their play and behavior whether they intend to or not.

In the context of a majority-White society, the NBA is one of the few spaces in which Blackness is the norm. Given this difference, and also given the continuing significance of and tension around racial issues in this society, professional basketball takes on unavoidable racial meaning. The portrayal of Blackness in basketball occurs in the midst of a greater process of racial formation, linking ideas about race with race-based institutional arrangements and social relations. The NBA seeks to present race in ways that are palatable (and even exciting and comforting) to a largely White fan base.

To no small extent, basketball’s surge in popularity has depended on new forms of race relations that make Black players as subjects of fandom not only permissible but even desirable within mainstream society.

The NBA seeks to construct a fantasy world of race relations (NBA Cares) which obscures racial difference (Magic, Bird) and reinforces dominant conceptions. This is important to the league in two ways. First, it prevents the league’s White fans from feeling uncomfortable rooting for Black players. But second, through allowing fans to reconcile with the young Black man through supporting him on the court, the league also profits from their potential discomfort around racial issues.

Then there are the moments when this formula gets thrown a curveball. In 2004, Indiana Pacers player Ron Artest became famous for going into the stands and confronting a white fan that had thrown a cup of beer on him. Known as the “Malice at the Palace” the incident involved fans coming onto the court and literally fighting NBA players. Each exchange was between a white fan and a black NBA player. The repercussions led to nine players being suspended without pay for a total of 146 games, which led to $11 million in salary being lost by the players. Five players were also charged with assault, and eventually sentenced to a year of probation and community service. Five fans also faced criminal charges and were banned from attending Pistons home games for life. The fight also led the NBA to increase security presence between players and fans, and to limit the sale of alcohol.

Yesterday, at the end of Game 5 of the Western Conference first round series between the Denver Nuggets and Golden St. Warriors, guard Stephen Curry was enraged by words from a spectator as he left the court: See Video below.

At the 1-minute mark, Charles Barkley mentions “One of his rules”, that a NBA player should be able to grab a fan at the end of the game and take them to half court and have them repeat what they said, with the risk of them being beaten up for what they had said. Though barbaric, it points in the direction of something the NBA could implement to deal with race-relations in a way that has never been done before.

But despite the efforts of the league ownership and management structure to control racial meaning in professional basketball, Black players themselves are the primary social actors responsible for the construction of race in the NBA. Much as the league seeks to control their behavior, and much as they are taught that sports are apolitical and race is no longer an issue in American society, players are largely free to act as they wish.

If only they did.